I was able to attend the Need for Speed event at the BLVD nightclub in New York City recently along with my colleague and fiancee, the beautiful Aileen Coe. A big deal has been made about NFS:S being a chance for the Need for Speed franchise as EA tries to expand the brand a bit. Having had some good hands-on experience, I can say that I am definitely excited for the “new” NFS.
On a podcast that I hope will be up soon over at our friends at SFX 360, I was asked by JVB what my first impressions were. My response drew some laughs: I said that if the classic Need for Speed got drunk one night and ended up having a love child with Forza Motorsport, it would be Need for Speed: Shift. It’s got elements of the namesake games, but this is really not your previous Need for Speed games, mainly due to the simulation aspect of this one.
The first thing I noticed was the cars’ control as I started playing. I spent most of my first playthrough trying – and failing – to stay out of the dirt. As I spent my time prior to that day playing Outrun on XBLA and Ridge Racer 6 on the 360, I wasn’t quite ready for a more realistic driving experience. I did eventually adjust to have a decent driving experience, as you’ll see in the video below. One reason I was able to adjust was because of the accuracy of the brake lines that you’ll see in the video, but they play into the game for more than just guidance. They’re key for what is essentially the game’s franchise mode, which I’ll get into in a bit. Control is tight, but one thing I really like, which is evident in the video posted, is that hitting something can be legitimately disorienting. The camera shakes madly, the screen goes into greyscale, and if it’s a bad enough hit, there’s a blur for a few good seconds. It’s much better than games such as Gran Turismo in that aspect, in the fact that Gran Turismo has always played more like pinball in cars. I don’t believe you can end a race due to damage (you can be DQ’d for cutting the track three times), but you do feel damage, and it is hurtful.
The key component of the game, however – and the way it’s being sold – is a level system that depends on how you drive. Driver levels can basically be divided into two categories: smooth, skillful drivers and aggressive drivers, with differences in degree on both sides. This works on how you drive during races. Skill points are gained by driving properly – holding to your race line, mastering corners (you’re rated on corners you’ve mastered; for example, if you took Daytona International Speedway, there would be five corners, if you count the turn outside Pit Row), and smooth overtakes without hitting the other car – and not trying to kill other drivers. Aggressive driving is everything from drafting behind other cars to spinning them off the track. This is a great idea, though I have a hunch there’s not going to be a lot of “skillful” drivers online; a game that rewards aggressive driving is basically begging for Demolition Derby. Not that I mind this, of course.
These points you gain for levels come into play in the game’s franchise mode. You gain stars for podium finishes – every spot in the top three is a star, so 1st is three stars – and by hitting milestones the game gives. I was unable to get deep into franchise mode, but the stars are necessary to advance deeper into franchise mode. In addition to stars, you gain money which is used to purchase better cars, and there are also some very nice tuning options to get the most out of the cars. It’s not QUITE as invovled as Gran Turismo, but it’s close enough to suffice.
I was unfortunately unable to get any information about this game’s online mode, nor were we givin any. In fact, the one thing I heard about online mode was “don’t ask about online mode.” When we review the game, we look forward to going deeper into online play, though I wonder what the few people that knew the game at the event – there was easily a 3:1 model to employee ratio, making actual information a hard thing to come across – were being so secretive about. One thing I didn’t like was that you can buy cars with Microsoft Points, which normally wouldn’t be too bad, but if Tiger Woods PGA Tour is any indication, cars that are purchased with MS Points will be useable online. I strongly hope this isn’t the case, but I’m not under any illusions.
With that aside, this is the first time I’ve not wanted to stop playing a game at a press event. I got bored of Madden when I went to ESPN Zone in ’06. I was bored quickly by games like Risen and Mythan Wars. But I didn’t want to put the controller down on this, and I’m legitimately excited to get our review copy to the point where I probably shouldn’t be the one reviewing this game, lest I sacrifice my so-called journalistic integrity.
Need for Speed: Shift ships on September 15th for North America; considering that’s also when NHL ’10 drops, it’s a good day to like EA games. Until then, sate yourselves with pictures from the event itself, as well as gameplay video of myself trying one of the more powerful cars; it shows some of the issues that come with controlling the more powerful cars, and also shows how cathartic aggressive driving can be. There was supposed to be another video of Aileen driving, but for some reason, it seems to have been deleted.*
* – Translation: It was nine minutes long, of which eight were spent either fishtailing or smashing into things. She got lapped twice. She surely deleted it. Alas.